Docs

Natural Selection

If Natural History New Zealand has learned anything since it started 25 years ago, it's that change is good. The last six years have been especially gainful for the Dunedin-based factual production company, which has become an important player in the international non-fiction market. The change of its ownership in the late 1990s from public broadcaster Television New Zealand to media conglomerate Fox quickened the pace of growth for the prodco in remarkable ways. Most significantly, production output expanded more than 400% to include genres outside the realm of natural history, prompting the company to rebrand itself this past July to simply NHNZ. However, while its name has changed, NHNZ is still doing what it has always done best: telling innovative real-life stories. Today, the production company's films - from pure wildlife to science, medical and adventure programming - are seen in 180 countries worldwide. And it seems it has only just begun to relay all the stories it intends to tell.
July 1, 2002

If Natural History New Zealand has learned anything since it started 25 years ago, it’s that change is good. The last six years have been especially gainful for the Dunedin-based factual production company, which has become an important player in the international non-fiction market. The change of its ownership in the late 1990s from public broadcaster Television New Zealand to media conglomerate Fox quickened the pace of growth for the prodco in remarkable ways. Most significantly, production output expanded more than 400% to include genres outside the realm of natural history, prompting the company to rebrand itself this past July to simply NHNZ. However, while its name has changed, NHNZ is still doing what it has always done best: telling innovative real-life stories. Today, the production company’s films – from pure wildlife to science, medical and adventure programming – are seen in 180 countries worldwide. And it seems it has only just begun to relay all the stories it intends to tell.

Natural History New Zealand: a history lesson

In 1977, New Zealand public broadcaster Television New Zealand, opened the Natural History Unit (NHU) with a mandate to produce blue-chip docs that explore New Zealand’s wealth of wildlife. Programming was directed to the local audience, and the first series produced by the unit was Hidden Places in 1978. After five years of churning out natural history docs, the NHU received official recognition for documentary filmmaking in 1982. An episode of the series Wild South, ‘Sealion Summer’, made the finals in the first Wildscreen film and television festival in Bristol, U.K.

One of the most prominent faces of the Natural History Unit was Michael Stedman, who was appointed executive producer of the NHU in 1979. Although he left two years later to become head of television training for the Australian Film and Television School — he went on to hold other high profile posts with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the United Nations — he returned in 1987 and was instrumental in progressing the company to what it is today. Stedman was named director of program production, and was later appointed managing director. The unit began to make its first coproductions with Discovery Channel in the U.S. in the late 1980s, and in 1992 an NHU film crew became the first to spend a winter in Antarctica, resulting in the productions Emperors of Antarctica, The Longest Night, and Solid Water Liquid Rock.

Stedman and his team had a vision for TV New Zealand’s NHU to ensure it survived and flourished: expand it beyond New Zealand’s borders and reach the international market. Although the unit could make the films it wanted — films primarily geared towards a Kiwi audience — its reach in the international market was limited, both in terms of content and finances. ‘We were part of TVNZ, which is a domestically focused public broadcaster,’ explains Stedman. ‘We realized, in the changing climate, that if we stayed part of a small public broadcaster in a small country, the amount of money available was going to decrease because competition was increasing. Our future, if we were to have one, lay in the international market. We convinced TVNZ it would be a good thing to sell us.’

In 1997, Fox Television Studios, owned by media heavyweight News Corporation, bought an 80% share in TVNZ’s NHU. Fox renamed the unit Natural History New Zealand, and two years later NHNZ became a wholly owned News Corp. company. ‘TVNZ didn’t have an international focus, Fox did,’ notes Stedman. ‘Fox allowed us to do what I believed we had the ability to do.’

Changing of the guard

The sale of the Natural History Unit to Fox helped spur several changes, not least of which was an employee expansion. According to Neil Harraway, director of production and marketing for NHNZ, ‘When Fox came in five years ago, we had 50 people producing 10 hours a year. Now, we’re more like 120 [staff] making 40 to 50 hours a year.’

Fox also signed off on a technical upgrade program, and NHNZ updated cameras, sound equipment and offline machines. Six new offline suites and a third sound suite were created, which enabled a seamless digital post path. ‘[Fox] invested in our production facilities and, as a result, we upgraded all of our equipment until we had the capability to be digital from beginning to end,’ explains Harraway. ‘That was the first big difference.’

Another key improvement introduced to NHNZ was the capability to deficit finance projects. ‘If we like a project and can interest one or two partners in it, we don’t have to raise all the money,’ says Harraway. ‘We can invest against the revenue over five or six years of sales and that’s a great advantage.’

In terms of editorial production decisions, Harraway says copro partners come first. ‘Fox Television Studios in L.A. takes a healthy interest. We report financially and Fox stimulates ideas and approaches to possible partners. But, in the end, we work for the client. They’re the ones that matter.’

Copros are the meat and potatoes of NHNZ’s bottom line. The prodco has forged coproduction relationships with Discovery Communications’ networks including Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, Discovery Health and TLC, as well as broadcasters such as NHK in Japan and France 5. ‘We are one of few truly international production companies,’ notes Harraway. ‘People tend to concentrate on their market, especially people in the biggest markets, and maybe partner with another. We work with as many partners as we can. We’re one of the biggest suppliers to Discovery [Communications], in terms of programming hours, outside of the BBC.’

Further, Harraway says that because NHNZ doesn’t have a home market, the company must foster international ties. ‘We rely for our success on communication with the client, listening carefully to what they want, discussing it with them as it goes. It doesn’t always go perfectly, but we have a reputation for listening and doing,’ he explains. ‘What also characterizes us is value: good production values and good storytelling at a reasonable price.’

The rates for NHNZ’s programs vary, but both Harraway and Stedman agree that budgets are decidedly lower than they were even a few years ago. Natural history remains on the higher end, however. According to Harraway, top-of-the-line programming for NHNZ now fits in the US$500,000 to $600,000 per hour range, as opposed to US$800,000 to $1 million per hour a few years ago. The one-hour wildlife program The Devil’s Playground, about the Tasmanian devil, cost US$540,000, while the recent one-off copro with National Geographic International, Tarsier – The Littlest Alien, carries a budget of US$380,000. The reason, says Harraway, is that the former required a lot of time in the field with nocturnal cameras, while the latter studied the behavior of the Philippine primate with the help of a small crew. ‘It depends on the genre and how many people,’ says Harraway. ‘If you can have a quick shoot, it’s going to be cheaper.’

Beyond Blue chip

Three years ago, Michael Stedman took a hard look at the international market for documentary and natural history programming. He saw a larger volume of production, but fewer slots. Stedman decided it was time to branch out beyond NHNZ’s staple wildlife genre to pursue different types of programming.

To determine the selection of genres to pursue, he considered how NHNZ could maximize its existing resources. Explains Stedman, ‘We had three competencies: one was the ability to tell stories, a second was the ability to film in specialized ways — for example, filming in vitro cannibalism in sharks is not so different from endoscopic filming in human beings — the third skill we had was the ability to interpret science [animal biology, human biology]. With those skills, other areas that could augment our production output and cushion us against any downturn were: medical, science and adventure.’

Expanding beyond natural history wasn’t difficult, says Stedman, because the new genres matched the skill sets of the existing teams and crews. ‘The people we have are able to move across genres because, boiling it all down, we are storytellers.’

Nonetheless, medical doctor Paul Trotman, among other specialists, has been added to NHNZ’s employee roster to provide ideas as well as specialized production expertise. The list also includes executive producers Andrew Waterworth, a science specialist from Beyond 2000; formerly L.A.-based Steve Talley, who specializes in history and archaeology; Wayne Tourrell, who has a background in drama and documentary; and Richard Thomas, who specializes in social documentary. ‘We’ve had some great stimuli from new people who have come in,’ says Harraway. ‘We have a spread of experts and a lot of generalists.’

Discovery Health Channel has become a good match for NHNZ’s pursuit of the medical genre. The niche-caster recently partnered with NHNZ for the 4 x 1-hour (US$300,000 per episode) medical series Search for a Miracle, which looks at the efforts to find cures for muscular dystrophy, cystic fibrosis, diabetes and Parkinson’s disease. Last year it paired with NHNZ for the six-part series Kill or Cure: The Bizarre and Curious History of Medicine, a historical look at medical conditions and treatments.

Bob Reid, senior VP and GM of production at Discovery Health Channel, and previous VP of production for Discovery Channel, has worked with NHNZ for three years. Reid, who frequently fields pitches from NHNZ, says the prodco minimizes concerns when negotiating copros. ‘They’re good at figuring out what we, as a network based in the U.S., want and need in our own production and development. They bring us ideas that suit us and that can be executed on budgets we can afford.’

The expansion into different genres has meant a greater production output for NHNZ. This year, it will produce around 50 hours, with that number rising to 55 for fiscal 2003. There is no specific hour allotment per genre. Branching out, however, hasn’t meant the company’s staple genre, natural history, has gone by the wayside. The opposite is true, says Stedman. ‘We’re spending more money on natural history than we’ve ever spent. It’s not about taking from one pot and putting into another, it’s about growing all of the pots,’ he says. ‘You’ve always got to go back to what a company is. [Ours is] a group of storytellers that have a particular passion and if you forget that, you forget it at your peril.’ Some of the more recent wildlife projects on NHNZ’s slate include: The Most Extreme, a 13 x 1-hour copro with Animal Planet that involves science, history and wildlife and carries a budget of US$174,000 per hour; the one-hour NGCI copro Baby-Faced Assassins (w/t) (US$300,000), about Aussie marsupials; and Yukon Quest (US$190,000), on dogsled racing in Alaska, U.S., and Canada’s Yukon territory.

Janet Vissering, senior VP of programming for National Geographic International, has worked with NHNZ for over five years. She applauds NHNZ’s creative approach to programming, from science to adventure, and cites the recently completed one-hour one-off copros The Ant That Ate America and Hot Science from Antarctica as standout productions. For Vissering, The Ant That Ate America, about the imported red fire ant in the southeastern U.S., distinguishes itself from the ranks of docs about the bugs, while Hot Science includes cutting-edge, never-before-seen footage of the remote Antarctic region. ‘NHNZ takes chances with new styles and new genres,’ says Vissering. ‘It has a great knack for storytelling.’

Setting up shop

In the spring of 2002, NHNZ opened an office in Beijing, China. Headed by News Corp.’s Beijing-based Rachel Yu, the bureau was created as a production base to cultivate new stories from Asian soil. Explains Stedman, ‘The world has seen a lot of stories on China, but they are all based on the World Trade Organization and Tiananmen Square, and most of those stories are made by Western film crews who spend two or three weeks there and then leave. With China, my view was that you could sit outside and keep going in and out, or you could work from within, in partnership [with Chinese companies] and that is absolutely the right way to go. It’s the only way to go if you want to do anything more than a couple of films a year.’ NHNZ has plans for 10 films to be produced from Beijing this year, including Mountain Jade and Saving the Great Wall.

NHNZ also opened an office in Washington D.C., the U.S. hub of documentary filmmaking, in February of this year. The home of National Geographic and Discovery, the city is ideal for NHNZ to establish a base. Helmed by Michael Lennon, formerly of Discovery Communications, the office provides a visible presence in the area where NHNZ’s strongest partners reside. ‘Washington is, without a doubt, the most important city in the world from any documentary filmmaker’s point of view,’ acknowledges Stedman. ‘The D.C. office exemplifies the importance we place on maintaining strong relationships and understanding the needs of the people we’re making programs for. We’re New Zealanders and there’s a lot about the U.S. that we understand, because we’ve been making programs for that audience for a very long time. [But,] we don’t pretend we know everything and we acknowledge we’ve got to keep learning.’

While the office in Beijing is primarily for production, the office in D.C. is a networking base. The mandate isn’t sales; Lennon deals in concepts, says Stedman. ‘[Lennon] is a liaison for us. Everything we develop and every idea we have we bounce past him. We talk with him three,

four, five times a week to make sure there’s an ongoing presence, an ongoing dialog. It makes it easier for those companies and those channels to interact with us.’

Discovery Health’s Reid says that when he or any of his colleagues venture to New Zealand, NHNZ people are there to greet them. ‘They always make it a point to have you come in and talk to them, not just to the leaders or managers, but to the entire team – producers, writers, editors, directors – so they can each get a sense of what the network is looking for,’ explains Reid. ‘They try to get information in-depth — so it’s not

so much what we tell them, but what they come to know on an organic level.’

A new leaf

Stedman is optimistic about the future of NHNZ. He would like to see the company grow further by expanding production output, but at a steady, assured pace. What it comes down to, he says, is a willingness to evolve. ‘You’ve got to constantly examine the way you work and where you’re putting your effort. We’ve put more effort into getting the stories and concepts right and stripping away the bits and pieces around a production that don’t contribute to the on-screen look of the film,’ notes Stedman. ‘To stay alive, we’ve had to be highly adaptive and nimble. Are we more innovative than other companies? Probably not, but we keep it at the forefront and constantly adapt, and that’s part of being able to exploit the opportunities in the marketplace.’

About The Author
Selina Chignall joins the realscreen team as a staff writer. Prior to working with rs, she covered lobbying activity at Hill Times Publishing. She also spent a year covering the Hill as a journalist with iPolitics. Her beat focused on youth, education, democratic reform, innovation and infrastructure. She holds a Master of Arts in Journalism from Western University and a Honours Bachelor of Arts from the University of Toronto.

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